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Look Here. Not There. — The Zena Sutherland Lecture

I am honored to give this year’s Zena Sutherland Lecture, named for an important educator and champion of children’s literature. Where the world saw shock and controversy in such now-iconic children’s books as Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, Zena Sutherland saw imagination and humanity. Where the world saw idealization of childhood, Sutherland saw young people, at once real and under ongoing and fascinating construction. This lecture provides me with an opportunity to channel that spirit as I implore you to retrain your vision or perspective, as Zena taught us through her lectures and reviews. I hope to encourage you to defy the expected, and to seek unexpected treasure and inspiration, as you “Look here. Not there.”

Rita Williams-Garcia (left) and the Garcia family, circa 1990. Photo courtesy of Rita Williams-Garcia.

Allow me to share one of my own experiences in retraining my expectations on childhood development. With my first daughter, Michelle, I learned to create a schedule for my unborn child. Every day at the same time, I’d tap my belly in one spot and she’d respond by sticking out an appendage in a different area. I’d tap here. She’d poke there. After playtime, we’d share a cup of yogurt and then off to sleep she went. My unborn daughter wasn’t merely “the baby I was carrying,” but a person I found interesting. Funny, even. I couldn’t wait to meet her. And although I didn’t know it, through those unexpected pokes my unborn child was training me to see her not as that “idealized” infant but as a person under construction.

Now, fast-forward a few years. The family had gone to Virginia Beach for vacation. We ate at the Black Angus steakhouse. When we returned home, Dad, reclining on the sofa, asked if anyone had seen the TV remote. My younger daughter, Stephanie, who was playing with her Legos, answered, “Dad, get up and shake your Black Angus.” He and I looked at each other, as if to telegraph how to treat this: Above all, don’t reward her by laughing. She kept playing with her Legos, not looking up, so we decided to let it pass. We’d laugh later. After a few minutes, she looked up at me to indicate, “Yes. I know what I said.” One thing was certain: with this child, I could expect surprise.

* * *

Illustrators and authors are always asked: who or what was your primary inspiration? Who influenced your creativity? Many of us have a short answer, but the real answers about an artist’s influences are complex. Most people assume I was the source of creativity who inspired my daughters when they were young. In reality, it was their army sergeant father, Peter Garcia, who supplied a great deal of cultural enrichment to the children. Michelle and Stephanie learned to properly bounce on the bed to a James Brown beat. Peter introduced them to Langston Hughes’s Jesse B. Semple stories. It was while waiting for me to come home, while I was in graduate school, that Peter taught the girls the “story starter game.” Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there lived Rubber Band. And Rubber Band lived in a… And the next storyteller would continue and then pass the story baton to the next teller.

If we look in the same predictable places and make assumptions, we miss the surprises. We overlook other possibilities.

As for my own influences or inspirations, the answer is multi-tiered. Today, the short answer is: I look here. Outside my window. The window was my favorite place as a young child in Far Rockaway, Queens. One day a storm flooded my neighborhood. When I looked outside I saw people rowing down streets in boats instead of driving their cars. This image stayed with me. Five years later, in the second grade, I wrote “The Flood” for a class assignment as we learned to tell a story using who, what, when, where, and why. The details of my story: creative, for sure. The impression of looking out at and observing the water as a very young child: long-lasting.

To this day, I am drawn to water, which is remarkable, since I’m afraid of water and don’t swim. I take photos of bodies of water when I’m on Amtrak trains. When I look, I’m not looking at water, but what it releases in my thoughts. Water holds great metaphoric value; both peaceful and violent. I look here. Out at the water.

I don’t always travel to look and discover. Sometimes visitors come calling at my window. A few years ago, I stopped my morning’s work on my manuscript to hear the song of the cicada that had attached itself to the screen of my bedroom window. I looked at its form, both solid and translucent. I studied its tenacity. The image and its value will come in handy when I write about a character’s steadfastness.

The daily sight I truly miss is that of the mounted police who used to ride down my block every day at exactly 11:39 a.m. I’d stop my work at the sound of their clip-clopping to enjoy the majesty and partnership of human and beast. It made the child within me smile and anticipate 11:39 every day.

* * *

I find observation a vital key to nailing details in storytelling. That’s probably why I like to think and write near my window. About twenty years ago, when I was writing my YA novel Every Time a Rainbow Dies, I remember watching for a pair of mourning doves that sang outside my window and built their nest. The very look of them suggested love. I read up on this breed and how they equally share the nest building and rearing of squabs. But the more I observed the cooing pair outside my window, the more I wondered, what would happen if suddenly one mate had been killed or was no longer there? I imagined hearing the song of a lone mourning dove.

As I wrote my novel, the story of a teenage boy who falls in love with a teenage girl who was sexually assaulted, I knew I was dealing with the same kind of absence as with the mourning dove. I was seeing an otherwise idealized picture of love that could not be completed.

Ysa, the girl who had been raped, understandably spurns Thulani’s ideals of love and romance. She does it while speaking to him about a male mourning dove who is trying in vain to build a nest. I would have missed writing this scene had I not paid attention to the habits of mourning doves, right outside my window.

At the time I was writing Jumped, a story about peer violence and bystander behavior, I needed more insights into the life of one of the main characters as it was before she became the aggressor. For inspiration, I looked around me for girls who fit the aggressive nature of the character. To my surprise, while walking by the basketball court in New York’s West Village, I saw a toddler sitting on her father’s lap. In my eyes, I had found my character before she became aggressive. That sighting captured more than a moment and gave me a timeline to measure the distance between a young girl on her father’s lap and an adolescent who will viciously attack another girl. That sighting allowed me to see the character as a real person under ongoing construction, and not merely as a typical bully.

* * *

What I see and where I look influence my work. But sometimes, it’s what I hear that inspires me as a writer. Who can forget the iconic scene in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time in which the children all bounce their rubber balls in unison? I didn’t really know how much the sound of those balls in my head had influenced me until years after I’d read the book, when I wrote a short story for Avi’s anthology Second Sight: Stories for a New Millennium. The story was inspired by my memory of the women on that same block, who all seemed to mix cornbread with a wooden spoon at the same time. My story went into the collection, along with — amazingly — a  story by Madeleine L’Engle.

The image and sound of the rubber balls bouncing reached me in the places that I dream. Images, story, song, film, dance, nature — are all embedded in my dream space. Dreaming is too broad a subject to cover here, but suffice it to say, when you’re in pursuit, looking for something, the answers are often found in dreams. Instead of looking out there, I look in here, in my dreams.

* * *

While in Charleston, South Carolina, for the YA book festival YALLFest, I came upon an exhibit of trees with blue glass bottles. I smiled. It reminded me of my mother. This would be the kind of thing she would do — an art installation in our yard. My sister, brother, and I would come home from school every day, not sure what we would find. Most memorable was her paint-splattered garage door. Imagine that sight between a row of otherwise identical houses and yards. My siblings and I were certain that vandals from the other side of our neighborhood were responsible, but Miss Essie came outside, snapping her fingers beatnik-style, proclaiming that she had painted her mind.

Painting by the author’s mother, Essie Coston Williams, 2003. Photo courtesy of Rita Williams-Garcia.

In her final days, my mother produced a childlike painting of trees, sky, and birds. The red birds, I can’t tell if they’re birds or hearts. I think they’re both. In her way, my mother taught me to look here, not there, and to find wonder in the ordinary. As a child, I would stop a kickball game in full swing to daydream. It’s in daydreams where I find all things are possible.

Even today I make time and space for daydreaming. I have favorite park benches where I sit and let my mind wander. On one park bench I listened to a rap battle between two birds, each trying to impress a third. The third flew away, but the battle continued. I reveled in those individual voices.

* * *

There is so much distraction in the world that at times it is difficult for me to hear myself think or to solve problems. This is where unraveling tangled yarn comes into play for me as a source of refocusing and relaxation. As I pick away at knots, I begin to see my way through unresolved issues with the manuscript I’m writing or issues within my personal life. Pulling and loosening those knots allows me to let go of one thing to free another. I gain clarity. I am looking there, at the yarn, which allows me to look here, at what is important.

I have a thing for yarn. I went looking last year for pink yarn for a project and couldn’t find it. When I turned on the news I saw what had become of all the yarn. A ball of pink yarn wasn’t just a ball of pink yarn. It became bigger, a symbol of resistance at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, DC.

Stephanie and Peter at the 2017 Women’s March. Photo courtesy of Rita Williams-Garcia.

I’d expected to see Michelle, my news outlet editor daughter, among the pink hats. Instead, I found not only Michelle but also my younger daughter, Stephanie, and the biggest feminist in the family: their drill sergeant dad. While a picture of writer mom and her daughters at the rally would have captured an iconic moment, the greater picture revealed that a women’s resistance movement was a people’s resistance movement. I often write with a particular picture or message in mind, but often my intentions are improved by a bigger and unexpected result.

Once again, I was reminded to allow for the surprises in life and in work and to not always look in the same places for leadership. As a young woman I looked to my elders, but as an elder, I am inspired by and learn from young leaders. My own mentor, teen literary activist Marley Dias, continues to teach me so much about passion and focus. Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and across the country leading the fight for their lives teach us all about stepping up and taking on leadership roles. And some of our new voices, our educators, have been our leaders all along and model fighting the good fight to their students. I see this during my school visits as young people learn about the Civil Rights era through my novel One Crazy Summer. These students are saying in their essays and artwork, “We don’t have to look elsewhere. We are the answer, and we can stand with one another.”

When we, as artists, visit schools, we don’t know if we will inspire students, if we will send kids’ minds to dreaming or to action. We don’t get our answer right away — or ever. Still, we try to inspire young minds to look for wonder in unexpected places while they are fascinated by life and under ongoing construction. Still, we keep our eyes open and look for signs of their engagement while we allow for the surprise.

From the November/December 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Rita Williams-Garcia About Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita Williams-Garcia is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Gone Crazy in Alabama, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books.

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